THE FEDERAL government struggles to find a consensus on immigration reform, a host of cities have passed ordinances or implemented policies ordering local police and other public employees not to ask about a person's immigration status.
For example, the Houston Police Department's Immigration policy states that it will not detain a person solely based on the belief that the individual is an illegal immigrant and officers will not ask about legal status unless a person is arrested and taken to jail.
Localities with these policies are referred to as sanctuary cities, and according to the independent think tank Migration Policy Institute (MPI), there are now hundreds of them in the United States.
They effectively give safe haven to persons in the country illegally, say critics, who note that such a santuary creates, among other issues, a homeland security threat. Five of the 9-11 hijackers had immigration violations. And more recently, it was discovered that three members of the plot to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey were illegal immigrants (their city of residence, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is not regarded as a sanctuary city).
Jack Martin, special projects director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says these policies are inadvisable because they create conditions that attract illegal residents to a community. He adds that the presence of a large illegal population "provides a camouflage within which criminal or terrorist elements may operate without detection."
Critics further say that sanctuary cities are contravening federal law. Technically, the policies walk a fine line. An analysis by MPI does not find such "don't ask" policies illegal. According to Muzaffar Chishti, director of the MPI's office at New York University School of Law, although the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act bans localities from prohibiting employees from sharing immigration information with the federal government, "in most of these [sanctuary city] ordinances, the prohibition is only against asking." Chishti also says most of the policies have exceptions for police dealing with certain crimes.
To close that loophole, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) recently proposed an amendment to the pending immigration bill that would have required local law enforcement to ask suspected illegal immigrants their status, making policies like Houston's illegal. The amendment was defeated by one vote.
Police departments, though mindful of the importance of immigration laws, have reasons for supporting policies that prohibit asking about immigration status. Houston Police Department Public Information Officer J. …